Babies playing 'on a minefield'

Asbestos storage area on Hereford St in the red zone.
Asbestos storage area on Hereford St in the red zone.

The lives of future generations of children are at risk because of a major strategy being used in the rebuilding of Christchurch.

Historic use of asbestos in the ceilings of old homes has underlined a previously undetected problem.

Building and health experts are disputing the health risks involved and the future welfare of babies is said to be under secret threat.

An estimated 40,000 quake damaged Christchurch houses are feared to contain asbestos, much of it in ceilings. Four thousand have apparently already had undamaged asbestos ceilings sealed off with a new ceiling, just below the old, still existing asbestos level.

The Earthquake Damage Authority seems to have convinced itself that this dangerous impasse is OK, that it is responsible for repairs but not authorised to deal with actual or potential asbestos risks.

Its role, it says, is to simply cover damaged asbestos but that masking of undamaged asbestos is practical and ethical and that's what it's doing.

Canterbury District Health Board Medical Officer of Health Dr Allistair Thompson - whose legal duties to protect the public are unshakeable - disagrees strongly.

He says the tactic of two levels of ceiling is simply disguising a dangerous situation. He labels it "a potential health landmine."

He discounts the suggestion that an owner whose house has been given the second ceiling treatment would automatically pass that fact on to any future buyer, thus risking losing a sale. He talks in hard risk facts.

My layman's diagnosis: In 10 years, a new owner and DIY blackbelt could decide to fit downlights and unwittingly cutting through both ceiling levels could drop a cloud of dangerous asbestos dust.

Dr Thompson takes it further, citing real risk of a baby crawling for months across a carpet heavily impregnated by the killer dust his dad has unwittingly let loose.

Asbestos in their bodies might not be detected for 20 years when the original cause would not be obvious. Dr Thompson says you simply cannot depend on an owner necessarily pointing to the double ceiling and explaining why. Surely, the very least that could be done is to introduce and enforce new regulations which make listing the presence of asbestos and the double ceiling compulsory on the LIM as a future and continuing warning.

Arastou Shahabi, who has come to New Zealand with a wide background on asbestos, wrote expertly on the subject in this column last August.

Then worries were about its presence in the Auckland's soon to-be-discarded building above Aotea Square. He contacted me again a few days ago over more concerns we shared, this time when the Christchurch crisis became public. He agrees with Dr Thompson - that what is being done there now may be the simplest but is surely not the best way to deal with the asbestos problem. Or to avoid future risks.

"Finding a proper systematic approach needs more time and money. Maybe a committee including experts with different specialties could come up with the better outcome. As it is no-one is prepared to face the problem of huge amount of asbestos (in the 4000 houses already double-ceilinged by repairers).

"The encasement practice simply means exactly that - postponement rather than solving the problem.

"If they do not take fibres out now next generations will have to do that - a shameful process perhaps in 2050 because no-one is taking responsibility now."

Reid Steven, who is managing the joint Christchurch home repair programme with Fletchers, describes the double ceiling process as reliable "following national guidelines and recommended practices". He points to special training for repair crews.

I accept his sincere assessment but at the same time believe that while what is being done now is the simplest, it is still far from the best way of dealing with the asbestos problem.

I can't get rid of that image of generations of babies playing on secretly poisonous carpet surfaces.

Questions: Is there an equivalent problem in Auckland? How many double ceilinged old houses exist in historic and now rather chic suburbs?

In the mail bag:

"I wish to congratulate you once again on an excellent Off Pat column. I enjoyed reading about your conversation/encounter at the investiture in 1981 . . . . . . . it was touching and entertaining.

"The reader who wrote regarding medals, merits, etc, hits the nail with respect to the fact that these days many people are ‘honoured' for making money/business acumen, etc, and genuine philanthropy should be recognised.

"There are very many people in the country who devote countless hours voluntarily - very few would seek praise but it would please many people to know these wonderful people are recognised for their genuine, caring, and often tireless efforts of behalf of others.

"We are a country with countless volunteers, some in small ways and others caring for the less fortunate. I applaud the way you speak out about real issues.

"Cricket - well - you put this very eloquently . . . . I was not aware of the past figures as I am not a cricket fan. But, oh dear, I cannot help wondering about all this frequent turmoil in boardrooms . . . . . seemingly some ‘administrators' are more interested in keeping their jobs than doing their best for the game and the players. It seems a waste of money to send teams overseas when they are playing so poorly - perhaps they should stay home, put their house in order - stop all the interfering and allow a team to settle into their true game.

"We have in the past had some first-class players and our teams have done very well. I do not know how to solve the problem but I wish for more stability for the players very soon." - Alma Dawson

Also on cricket:

"My opinion is that as a nation of four million we punch beyond our weight internationally in several sports but we don't shine particularly in bat-and-ball games.

"Yes we have had brief historic periods with hockey and cricket. We currently have one rising teenage star in golf, tennis players who have trouble making the cut. And cricket!

"Contrast results in the ABC outdoor group: Athletics, boats and cycling. Or if you prefer, the four Rs: rowing, riding, running and rugby.

"One can speculate on all sorts of reasons for success or failure like coaching, talent, finance. I think it's fair to say that we just can't expect widespread wonders with such a small population.

"Let's encourage domestic involvement in all sports that people enjoy and have it competitive at both local and provincial level.

"But don't take it too hard if we can't always make the grade internationally." - Michael Scanlan

■ Reader Brian Ernshaw was right when he rang to correct Len Hutton's record test score from 354 (as I gave it) to 364. And also not out, when England declared at 903 for seven!

Western Leader